Allison Adah Johnson

Review: The Space Between

Review originally published in the 21st Century Music Journal, December 2001

When Hermann Hesse wrote about the Glasperlenspiel, a futuristic game of unknown rules which distills and expresses all known concepts in a synthesis of the artistic, the intellectual, and the metaphysical, he might have been presaging “The Space Between,” a trio consisting of Philip Gelb on shakuhachi, Pauline Oliveros on just-intonation accordion and Dana Reason on piano. The trio played two concerts recently in the Bay Area, at the Trinity Chapel in Berkeley on October 20 and at the “Strictly Ballroom” series at Stanford University on October 22.

Both concerts held to the same general format: a first half of solos followed by a group improvisation. The concert opened with Gelb's shakuhachi solo, a rhapsodic miscegenation of Jewish, Arab, and Japanese music-cultures and temperaments consisting of an improvisation built on the Hassidic folk melody “Baym Rebin's Sude” (At the Rabbi's Table). The touching folk melody was handled warmly and ingenuously by Gelb who embellished and adorned it with an impressive array of pitch bends and melodic curvatures.

In her piano solo, Reason explored the instrument—the keyboard, the inside, and the outside—and captivated listeners with the seemingly limitless sounds and sonic paths she could evince from the instrument's body. Displaying a thoughtful and thought-provoking solo, Reason based ideas and structures in her piece “Impulsion,” according to the program notes, on an alap from Indian classical music, deconstructed blues, and a child's lullaby. Her inventive and sublime soundworlds, along with a rich command of technique and genre produced an elegant, sonorous triptych.

Pauline Oliveros, the distinguished and iconoclastic composer and performer, presented a solo at the Trinity Chapel that was stunning. Working with gestures based on breath inspiration and expiration, Oliveros seemed to embody the piece—allowing her audible inhalations and exhalations to synthesize and propel the piece and the sonic energy. At times Oliveros touched lightly on a skeletal bass outline on accordion, but with a prismatic tactility that reflected and refracted the upper layers of breathing material. And when she intoned sounds vocally on top of the tapestry of just-tuning and atmospheria, it was as if she were suddenly expressing layers of ethos, pathos and humanity. There could be no other reaction than awestruck silence for several moments at the end of her solo. In her notes on the piece Oliveros writes:“Listening to this space I sound the space—I dedicate this music to compassion in this world now.”

After a brief pause, the ensemble reappeared and shone in a glorious give and take, a collective real-time invention of shifting languages and sound spectrums. The parsing, then recombining of timbres and textures allowed countless permutations of sonic personalities: from electronica, to harpsichord to muted morse codes tapped on sideboards and keyboards. The trio provided the audience a captivating aural arena, both warmly familiar and fantastic, as if the listener had wandered into an engaging conversation in some indeterminate and unknowable patois, subtitled by gesture and intention.

Duos emerged continuously with musical dialogues: an interplay between Oliveros and Reason conferred whimsy and complexity, with gestures and phrases seeming to rotate around an intervallic axis and submerged in abstract circus melodies. They suddenly merged voices into a layer of gentle sonorities and potential energy to allow Gelb, playing the quietest instrument, to define the main strata with bold and commanding held tones. Quickly moving to a duet between accordion and shakuhachi, the musicians locked into a chord, then expounded and evolved into Oliveros eliciting squeaks and knocks from above the keyboard. Joining the others in quick and quirky gestural runs—with Reason now taking up the above-the-keyboard rubbing and squeaking—the accordion then led the way to a sudden decompression into soft, plucking sounds. It was a truly lovely moment. The series of ad hoc duets continued, each introducing a new sonorous gestalt—everything from piano-accordion tone poems, to Gelb's impressively fast, flying, yet somehow understated, flutter-tonguing partnering Reason's utterly graceful, rounded arpeggio sweeps.

Finally, the trio emerged with a combination of held notes and runs (shakuhachi), sudden pitch-bending (accordion), and a low intoned passacaglia figure (piano) morphing together and separately into almost unrecognizable timbres—you would swear a theremin was on stage—and into a dreamfield of multi-phonics, harmonics and multi-dimensional arcs.

At the “Strictly Ballroom” concert there was an overflowing, standing room crowd—a heartening sight for this brand of sonic exploration—and you could hear a pin drop (or a cricket chirp) throughout the evening, such was the awe and concentration afforded these first-rate performers. They did not fail us.

Gelb opened again with a simple evocation of Hassidic song which he ornamented further and further while digging his heels into the material with fervor and finesse. Extending and expanding the idioms of the instrument, Gelb proffered ultra-quiet whistle tones and frenzied flurries of notes and everything in between.

Reason followed with an expansive, all-out offering of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic chimera, first catapulting a tempestuous, insistent gesture, spinning out as if trying to dislodge from itself, then allowing rhythmic offshoots of this to shift and settle into a contemplative and exploratory chordal recitation of deconstructed blues. Near the end of her solo she served up a torching melody, traversing the keyboard with virtuosic abandon, unafraid to evoke and invoke and repeat and exhale and shed. It is this kind of solo which earns Ms. Reason the well-deserved reputation as one of the most inventive, fearless and exacting pianists of her generation.

In the last solo of the evening Oliveros offered a resonant metaphor for the reductive, then expansive musical forms explored throughout the evening. She effortlessly presented complex arrays of layers while delineating discrete pools of sound: gesture versus prolongation versus space. Unafraid to allow breathing room, Oliveros would integrate then disintegrate sounds until only a single note was held and held. Then, presenting masses of sound like dense test patterns slowly undulating and falling away, again revealing a solitary note, Oliveros depicted a daunting paradigm: in the end the body stands alone and for itself.

The group work began with a soft descent of muted and intermittent sounds and expanded with stunning soloistic and group effects, at times converting the collective breathing of a roomful of rapt listeners into moments of audible marvel. Prompting and triggering one another with plucks and squeaks, then frenzies of notes, the performers negotiated each music terrain with characteristic eloquence and aplomb. In the end the piece gently settled into soft whistles, completing a fluid and fearsome symmetry that started from nothing, burned through the heights and depths, and finally evaporated into a reverie of nothingness.